Diversity in federal leadership matters: Perspectives from a public servant
In a recent executive order, the Biden administration pledged to promote the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal government. Federal leaders from underserved communities—like Robert Tse, senior policy advisor at the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utility Service—bring invaluable expertise and unique perspectives to their work. Tse is one of countless public servants who demonstrate how diverse leadership can help the federal government build a more inclusive workforce and offer more equitable services.
Why did you choose a career in the federal government?
I was always interested in public policy and public service. I majored in American history in college and studied the New Deal, which used public policy to make people’s lives better during the Depression. My view is to take an approach where government plays a positive role to improve our lives.
How has your racial and ethnic identity impacted your work?
I grew up in Indiana, so unlike California, there are few Asian Americans. That makes you sensitive to other people’s views and the importance of diversity and inclusion. In my federal career, I’ve deliberately pushed for inclusiveness.
On the personnel side—as the Asian American/Pacific Islander special emphasis program manager at the Foreign Agricultural Service—I worked with both Black and Hispanic special emphasis program leaders to increase diversity in the summer intern program. We identified and recruited from colleges with a high number of Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Black and Hispanic students. We had more than 10 Asian American summer interns—up from zero in previous years. We deliberately used the internship program as a means to open the door to federal careers for underserved communities.
How has your background as a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community influenced how you designed or delivered a specific program?
Around 2015, there was a meeting in then-Governor Brown’s office where representatives from local farmworker groups from the San Joaquin Valley met to discuss drought assistance for farmworkers. I listened and asked them what they wanted. They usually never get invited to the table where decisions are made. I told them they didn’t have to ask the governor for new technology training because it already existed in community colleges. I was the one sitting at both tables, so I connected the dots. I always talk about the importance of ensuring that farmworkers are included and can benefit from agricultural technology. That is a way of getting policies to explicitly include communities that are typically left out.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your approach to improving equity?
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of building broadband infrastructure to provide access to underserved communities. Telemedicine, telework and distance learning are a necessity in the household.
We must also look at infrastructure through an equity lens. Communities of color and low-income communities are often the most underserved. It does no good to bring broadband access to communities if the residents cannot afford it. Infrastructure done right means everyone benefits from access.
Do you have any recommendations on how agencies can leverage the diversity of federal employees to make public services more equitable and accessible?
The federal government should give people the opportunity to work on high-profile projects to bring their innovative thoughts in and make a difference, and then they should be recognized for it. We have to inspire people to want to do public service. We want more people to come in and feel inspired to do that.
Robert Tse is the senior policy advisor in the telecommunications unit at USDA’s Rural Utility Service. He is a national office staffer based in California, providing policy advice and analysis on a national level from outside the Beltway. He has been in public service for about 30 years with 27 of those years at USDA.